Buying jewelry, part one: The components of value

My GF Linda peered at a 9ct lemon quartz cocktail ring in a jewelry shop case. Surrounded by small green garnets and accented with diamond micro on the shoulders, it carried a $3,800 price tag. She wondered, "Worth it or not?

Throw on your pearls and read on.

Today, A few tips on assessing value, and paying the right price. On Tuesday, Feb. 2, a discussion of what is 'overpriced'.

Price includes...

The asking price reflects tangible factors (materials, production costs, the vendor's business expenses) and intangibles or variables: reputation (individual or brand), historical value or provenance, supply, desirability (especially whether the style is in), condition of the piece, and the economic environment ("the market").

Sometimes you can negotiate price, sometimes not. Either way, you need information to make a prudent decision.

Materials, production
and quality from a jeweler's perspective

Jewelry designer and blogger WendyB (Wendy Brandes) has written two informative, consecutive posts,
Get Smart (about manufacturing) and Get Smart (about quality).

These posts are must-reads. They will not only make you a more informed buyer, they can save you from pissing off Wendy by asking why her pieces cost so much.

What do materials cost?

It helps to know the approximate cost of materials in a piece, for example the current price of gold, and the carat price of the stones that interest you.

You also should know the basics of gem grading and the characteristics of the stones you're looking at. For example, knowing that even a very fine emerald is typically included, and that the inclusions or "garden" is part of an emerald's character (rather than assuming that they must look as clear as a diamond), will save you thousands.

You only need to know the range, not the exact prices. As Wendy points out, the cost of precious metals can fluctuate dramatically. That's why (as Belle de Ville of Beladora commented on Wendy's posts) she may sell a vintage piece for less than the production costs if it were made today.

Some jewelers will provide certified appraisals for gems or the finished piece. This is useful information (though shady ones will give you inflated appraisals). If you are buying an important piece, you can request an independent appraisal from your choice of appraiser.

Books and a tutorial

A good place to start is "Gem Identification Made Easy (Third Edition)" by Antoinette Leonard Matlins or, if you can find it, "Jewelry & Gems the Buying Guide: How to Buy Diamonds, Pearls, Colored Gemstones, Gold & Jewelry With Confidence And Knowledge" by the same author.

For the basics, The Gemological Institute of America (GIA) has a concise, basic tutorial, "How to Buy a Gemstone"

Unset stone prices

Diamond prices are easy to get, go to Blue Nile, Ice or other vendors and search away. One site that has coloured stones is Once you have some knowledge about materials–stones and metals–you will not be captivated by sheer size like Linda was for that 9ct lemon quartz.

Of course these will be retail prices, but you will not be paying wholesale, so you might as well be equipped with competitive retail prices.
And remember, you are paying for more than materials.

When jewelers set their price

Retail jewelers use the term keystone within the trade to indicate the markup of the item. Keystone is defined as double the wholesale price, "triple key" means the wholesale price is 1/3 of what the customer pays. Triple or quadruple keystone is the standard markup for 'everyday' brand jewelry such as Stuller or Ross-Simons.

You should be highly suspicious of offers of "wholesale" prices. A jeweler simply can't survive on less than double to triple keystone. I have on occasion cringed when hearing customers trying to beat a price way down. I want retailers and their suppliers to make a living and have their skills rewarded.

You can easily pay far more than these multiples for designer, rare or historical jewelry. A cameo owned by Garbo will carry a much higher price than a similar vintage piece, but the vendor should be able to prove provenance if the price reflects it.

At auction, the market will decide price.
Going to auctions is a good way to learn more about value. Crazy things can happen– bidding wars that leave pros shaking their heads– but go and watch.

In a shop, the vendor sets the price.

A good jeweler will educate you about the quality of stones, fabrication and design, among other topics. What you thought was shockingly expensive may adjust to "worth it" as you learn more. Read on your own, though, as vendors will naturally present a purchase in its best light.

Few jewelers I've met give deceptive information, but as a guideline, if you are in a place where you will never see the vendor again, the more information you should have.

Back to Linda's lemon quartz cocktail ring. Materials cost: less than $550 wholesale on a good day. Made in Asia, where manufacturing costs are low. Lively but inexpensive stone, rather light weight mount, okay workmanship. My verdict: overpriced.

I agree with Wendy that many customers don't know the costs that contribute to her price– and assert that even factoring in these costs, some jewelry is still overpriced.Bold
Part Two, What is 'overpriced'? appears on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2010.
And I name names.

Spending: Guru shifts style

The Canadian money-management columnist and TV host Gail Vaz-Oxlade is a straight-shooting woman who brooks no nonsense from financial reprobates who even consider spending an unnecessary nickel now that she's on their case. I've seen her take delusional couples to task on her TV show "Til Debt Do Us Part": "No, $70 for Friday night dinner out is not on. Pay down your mortgage."

I was struck by a quote from a recent interview with her in the Globe and Mail ("Accidental Guru" by Sarah Hampson, January 11, 2010). Vaz-Oxlade was, until recently, "very security oriented."

But then she witnessed the death of a close friend, which changed her. She said:

"You have to not only take care
of the issues so that you have the money, but you also have to have a great life... If we can't learn to appreciate the life that we have and enjoy the small joys then we'll continue to sacrifice what we do have for what we think we need."

I put down my cup of French roast (one of the small joys) to reflect. Every day, I read sales pitches oriented to 50+ people that imply, not very subtly, "Get it while you can", or "You've worked hard, you deserve this, so buy it."

I, too have
fallen for this seductive message. I like to say I want to see more of the world before some tour company has to drag me there. But at the same time, I have a nagging feeling of being led to something I don't wholly want.

my Bucket List is all consumables, what is the point, because things will not make me happy, and bigger things won't make me bigger happy.

A strand of
South Sea pearls would impart a contented glow– but not above that caused by good health, cherished relationships and simply being here. Or being here, simply.

After years of elder care, I've noticed that money (for most of us) and time are limited, but money won't buy you a lot more time.

Small joys need only slowing down to savour. Big ticket joys–whatever big ticket means to each of us–require judgment disabused of hype and fake promises.

Does the purchase represent my priorities or the vendor's image? Will it place me smack in front of discovery, wonder, beauty, peace or adventure? Will it connect to what I deeply value, or is it another example of what C.S. Lewis called "The American Dream: Work. Buy. Display. Repeat."?

Thank you, Gail! I'm placing your words at eye level at my desk.

"Results not typical"

At the beginning of the year, the diet industry likes to bombard us with ads, preying on our guilt over holiday indulgence.

Have you ever scanned one and noticed the "Results not typical" disclaimer? What exactly do they mean?
That I would lose even more than Valerie Bertinelli's 60 lbs in four months while eating their packaged mouse droppings?

Could they be
warning me that her turquoise bikini would be even more alluring on me? Holy jalapeno!

Or is their legally-required disclaimer there to serve notice about the possibility of the other extreme– what? I'm not going to lose weight at warp speed? Why don't they just say, "This won't be you, cupcake?"

Though Valerie's lovely, I don't think rail-thin is a requisite for allure.

One of my favou
rite actresses these days is Ruth Jones, whom I loved when she played Magz in the BBC comedy series "Saxondale". Steve Coogan plays her metal band roadie-turned-pest-exterminator and self-described "bit of a dick" boyfriend Tommy Saxondale. He calls her "my big angel, winched down from heaven."

When I saw her in the first episode, I was heartened: a big, sexy woman not portrayed as the cutup sidekick who can't get dates, but as a funny, strong, quirky and desirable.

Here's a scene from the series; Tommy tries to win Magz back after her fling with a yoga teacher:

"Results not typical" was part of the "safe harbor provision" developed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that allows advertisers to use unusually successful testimonials as long as they are accompanied by this phrase.

In two recent studies, the FTC found that despite the disclaimer, consumers still interpret the testimonials as being representative of what they will achieve. (More info: "Legal Review: FTC Decides 'Results Not Typical' No Longer Good Enough" in Response Magazine.)

The FTC wants to change the law so that advertisers must report, in each ad,
what the average consumer can expect, and has been trying to change the legislation.

Fat chance! The multi-billion dollar diet industry continues to leverage shame and showcase superlosers to sell their programs.

In memory: Kate McGarrigle

Kate McGarrigle, half of the beloved Canadian folk duo The McGarrigle Sisters, singer and songwriter, mother of musicians Rufus and Martha Wainwright, died from a rare form of cancer on Monday of this week, at sixty-three.

On that day, she was surrounded by her family, and left the world, they said, on "a haze of song".

I can't count the performances I saw at various folk festivals in '70s and '80s. They were a graceful, generous, cerebral pair who took risks within the folk form. In a time lit with dissent, they united French and English-speaking audiences in the transcendent sweetness of their harmonies.

Which song to select to remember her? Here is "Ce matin", a haunting song in French, which still reveals their Celtic roots. Kate plays piano.

The con of connoisseurship

Thorstein Veblen, from "The Theory of the Leisure Class":

"The gent
leman of leisure becomes a connoisseur in creditable viands of various degrees of merit, in manly beverages and trinkets, in seemly apparel... This calculation of aesthetic faculty requires time and application and the demands made upon the gentleman in this direction therefore tend to change his life of leisure into a more or less arduous application to the business of learning how to live a live of ostensible leisure in a becoming way."

Canadian philosopher Mark Kingwell elaborates:

"The gentleman is in fact a prisoner of his preoccupations, owned by rather than owning these outward tokens of position. And there is no escape for him or anyone else."

A one-two punch from two tart social observers, reminding me that the feverish pursuit of "the best" wastes life energy in a particularly soulless fashion, pun intended.

After forty years of full time work, I'm not exactly of the "leisure class", but had enough free time over the holidays to fake it. On New Year's day, I spent several hours trolling Esty for a pair of earrings. Ninety some pages of listings yielded one outstanding designer, a half-dozen so-so offerings, and eighty-nine pag
es of scary or overpriced dreck.

In those two hours, I could have babysat a friend's newborn, made biscotti, gone skating, or enjoyed a good movie. I had the vague, dispiriting sense of misuse of time. (I'll post on the one standout soon.)

Then I read Kingwell's "Ways of Not Seeing, On the Limits of Design Fetishism" in the November 2009 Harpers, and considered my trolling from a philosopher's perspective. This is Kingwell's enlightening book review on Deyan Sudjic's "The L
anguage of Things: Understanding the World of Desirable Objects".

I wondered, Does all this stuff-knowledge really matter? Is life better if you can identify Manolos from Maddens at 500 yards? How vulnerable am I to status spending?

My worst sheep-like behaviour is elicited when I'm having a business meeting to pitch my services with someo
ne who prizes status, which is common in the corporate world. I want to be chosen, and fitting in increases my chances.

If my client is a woman, I often get the full-body scan, that head to toe once-over, and I fall short of perfection. No Pink Tartan jacket, no Jimmy Choos. But because of my age (not expected to pack into a Prada mini) and quality of attire (unrecognizable brands but well-made), whew, I pass.

In private life, I would not carry a conspicuously logoed bag if you gave me one. At the meeting, my briefcase flaunts its schmantzy name.

Unmasking the desperate game of status signals is only part of the endeavour. I no longer want to hunt so avidly. I want to shop at a few good shops and patronize several beloved artisans whom I respect for the beauty and quality of their work. That would not be Coach.

Finding those exemplary few takes research. Several treasured sources have not survived the recession; that's why I was earring-hunting on Etsy.

I don't deliberately chose my purchases to elicit envy. But I have not renounced buying, either. I'm still lifted by the joy of a well-chosen necessary object. OK, mostly necessary.

Maybe connoisseurship is not the issue; being insecure or anxious enough to require the security blanket of status objects is a sadder state. I'd like to get completely free of the desire to impress anyone through my possessions.

When, if ever, do you buy to impress others? Do others' possessions impress you?

New pearls: Unconventional keishis

I've wanted to buy pearls from Kojima Company for ages, but either someone jumps on what I'm eying or the price is not within reach. (Shown, exquisite Kasumis, $8,300.)

But last week Koji
ma posted this endless 50 inch strand of "pondslime doublet keishis", and I thought, oooh.

These are not the pearls your parents gave you for your graduation.

Keishis (also spelled keshi) are, as a Tiffany saleswoman once told me, "an extra gift from the oyster", formed while it ejects an implanted nucleus (which is how cultured pearls are made).

Keishis can form in either fresh or saltwater pearls, so an accurate description indicates the pearl type as well, such as "Chinese freshwater keishi". Because keishis don't have that nucleus to guide the shape, they are 100% nacre, and never spherical. That solid nacre lends lustre and shimmering surface (orient) that beats even the finest cultured nucleated pearls.

Occasionally they form in spikes, like these "spikey pondslime keshis", which I call "punk pearls", $65 for a 16 inch temporary strand.

"Pondslime" refers to the rich natural colours (taupe, rose, lavender, green-gold) that occur in some freshwater pearls. Once obliterated with dark dye by Chinese pearl processors, they are now desirable.

Keishis also come in white, if that's your preference. Here's a full, lustrous 17.5 inch necklace, each pearl is about 15mm-16mm long; $210.

Formerly bargains, keishis are now more costly, especially in Tahitian and South Sea varieties. At Canada's carriage-trade jeweler, Birks, I saw a strand of dove grey Tahitian keishis, perfectly matched, for $25,000. (Stunning, overpriced.)

All pearls are lovable; a classic strand of Akoyas or Chinese freshwaters is a timeless, versatile adornment, often the first pearls received. Shown, Tiffany 18 inch 7-7.5mm white pearl necklace, white gold clasp, $5,000.

And those sumptuous, huge South Sea and Tahitians? Breathtaking as a Dior ballgown (and about as likely to grace my wardrobe).

But my passion these days is bumply baroques, funky keishis, off-rounds, coins or sticks that flash rainbow iridescence.
So here come my new pearls, which cost $170.

May I tantalize you with a few more remarkable pearls from Kojima? The strand I bought is now sold out, but there are many more marvelous choices. Or if you have a pearl dream, contact Sarah Canizzaro, Kojima's friendly owner, and she'll help you. She's passionate about pearls too!

Gold, peach and pink South Sea and petal pearl 17 inch necklace, $713. A not-too-pricey route to some South Sea beauties on your neck.

Exceptionally lustrous round to semi-round Kamoka (Tahitian) black pearl 16.5 inch temporary strand, 9.2 to 9.5mm, $2,390. Dreamy.

10.3mm Tahitian pearl and pink tourmaline ring, set in silver, size 6, $150.

Happy Valentine's, anyone?

Should 50+ try tough?

Near the end of last year, the New York Times ran a piece in its Style section titled "The Damsel is in Distress" by Ruth La Ferla. She quotes stylists, designers and fashionistas who have abandoned frou and flou for biker jackets, mannish blazers, studs and leather.

Oh, and "ripped hose, worn in an unstudied way by off-duty models and fashion insiders."
In my world, ripped hose would be met by an offer of a spare pair from a friend.

Mannish har
dly flatters me, though I get its appeal for the young and effortlessly sexy. I can do the all-black, the boots, the muffler– 85% of my street looks like this all winter.

But "tough and menacing" is not so appealing when you're asking for your senior's discount.

To all this, I say, taupe. Or grey, bitter chocolate and possibly plum, depending on what you like. If we temper all that black, in a trim but not skintight cut, we will triumph. These are the offbeat, interesting neutrals that offer those of us 50+ a seat at the style table without looking scary.

example, this Aquascutum mini-houndstooth taupey-brown coat leavens the black beneath. Wear with the stole, or not, belted or not.

And (again from Aquascutum) look how this black coat is lit by the club check lining and the black and white print organza stole.

We don't need to toughen up to look current. How about tempering severity with shine, drape and texture, as in this fine, minimalist sapphire-and-grey combination from Calvin Klein?

Anyway,'s Alison Baenen predicts that the tough-a-thon will be turfed faster than last New Years' Eve's playlist:

"The New York Times has wised up to the tough and sexy model-off-duty look everyone’s channeling these days and has summoned psychologists and trend forecasters to break it down. 'It’s not cool to be demure', one stylist polled reported.
We’re guessing this means the trend’s life span is just about up. Bring on the chintz!"

Doesn't matter, I'm over running to keep up. At 61, I can't quite remember what's current, and there's always a leading-er edge.

And trend-chasing's an expense I won't endorse. Though not above being captivated by finery,
there are more worthwhile places to spend my discretionary income. I'm grateful that many of us are helping Haitians through the latest disaster, contributing what we can through organizations we trust. Thank you.

"Tough" has another meaning; these people are living it.

Makeovers: Real help or movie make-believe?

Though a very infrequent Oprah watcher (occasional distraction on a treadmill), I caught her recent "Look Great at Every Age Makeovers" show, co-hosted with Rita Wilson.

The women did look better in their "after", all sleek trends and updated hair. But isn't it shooting fish in a barrel to start from the prison matron "before" depths of Stacy, 35?

All you have to do is find a subject who's hoarded her nunnish suits for fifteen years, and help her to reveal her svelte figure in a pencil skirt with stilettos, add ample bling, then finish with tumbling waves (three hair products).

They took Cindy from schoolmarm to siren after a 100 lb. weight loss. "I'm 42 but dress like I'm 62" she said.

I was shocked to hear the impression my age group made; no one I know in their 60s dresses like the "before" Cindy. FLDS wives maybe, but not women in my circle.

That morose mauve tent is not hard to trump with a leopard-print Michael by Michael Kors skirt, is it now?

In one segment, Wilson presented four women of different age ranges–30s through 60s– styled to "look fantastic for their age".

All wore black, tight bottoms– leggings or black narrow jeans–with various tops and accessories.

The 40 year old in leggings with a barely crotch-covering top looked inelegant. Maybe the leggings are
de rigeur for Hollywood, but to my taste they're crude. You sit in that top: instant skank.

The 50 and 60 year olds were transitioned into tight jeans, which "still look young".
Just don't think about sitting down for long.

The eldest makeover was the vibrant 67 year old Laurali, who puts in long days at her catering company, hence her sweats and practical braid.

In describing the makeover, Wilson said that she "dressed her for work" in skinny Levis jeans, white shirt and fitted Max Mara jacket.

"We gave her a white shirt that she can roll up at the sleeves", Wilson said proudly. The only white Laurali ought to wear in a professional kitchen is a chef's coat, institutional garb built to withstand the grind.

This makeover shows Wilson's showbiz sensibility: only in a movie could Laurali escape splashes or spills by rolling her white sleeves, or spend 14 hour days in ballet flats without arch support.

Wilson's own style is similar to Charla Krupp's: long flowing hair, suspiciously broomlike lashes, short skirt showing off toned legs, studded leather jacket. She's an unfurrowed fifty three; maybe being married to Tom Hanks keeps you looking young.

"I know my style, I've been helped by experts", she said. She provided three adjectives that summarized her style (I recall only "natural" and "sexy"), an approach I've described in a previous post. None of her three adjectives matched mine, which may explain why I didn't connect to her look.

What makes an hour of TV diverting fluff is not what makes sense in the real world. However, each woman was touched by her transformation and deeply grateful for the attention.

Releasing each woman's beauty and confidence is a worthwhile endeavour; I'd like to see the looks realistically reflect the continual attention required to keep ones' self "madeover" in the real world.

Running-errands wear

Rushing out to the store, picking up kids, taking your mother somewhere on short notice: prime schlumpadinka territory, where we throw something on, thinking they're just lucky we're doing it.

But then you run into that Ms Big with whom you just interviewed for a job, or your mother wants to stop "someplace nice" for lunch, and you might wish you hadn't been not quite so heedless.

In a good coat, you're covered

Assuming you aren't wearing sweats underneath, a smart coat will repel any oh-I-wish-I-were-better-dressed thoughts.

I chose these for their ability to elevate whatever's underneath. Each had to be long enough to pull together the everyday sweater and pants which you were wearing before you rushed out.
No motos, maddening to dress around, and unkind to many figures. No prints, fun but demanding to throw on without thought.

J. Cre
w wool Harbour Peacoat; ethereal colour (dried violet), topstitching and graceful lavish collar. Definitely not Army/Navy store gear, $220; some colours on sale.

Elizabeth and James
shearling vest, to toss over your jeans and neutral sweater (but not worn with idiotic open-toed boots with which Saks styled it).

$795 from
Saks Fifth Avenue; international shipping.

Hi from where it's cold. Moncler's long Melina coat provides pulled-together cover, the treat of fur trim, and rich dark olive, a welcome respite from black.

A Moncler coat is like wearing your own well-designed, heated house; $1,375 from Barney's.

For those in milder climates, or looking ahead to spring, this taupe Gryphon chain and grommet trim coat gives a sharp, clean line without being boring, $645 from Nordstrom.

Jessica Simpson (to my surprise a rather tailored line) turns in this snappy trench in rich cobalt.

A coloured coat is a time-honoured trick for diverting the eye and lifting spirits–yours and those who regard you. Price is a reasonable $138 from

In warm c
limates you could could reach for Diane von Furstenberg's Brandy, a softly draped metallic sheer jacket.

Smocking at the center back lends shape, and it's hand washable. $285 from Nordstrom; international shipping.

A jean jacket might be too short, but the denim trench neatly intersects casual and crisp. And this one, $149 from Talbot's, is machine-washable.

Burberry's leather trim cotton jacket ($895) will be sold out on Net-a-porter by the time you admire it, but it's so thunderously chic I had to show it.

Find a topper that denies you have not thought about your attire, throw on over neutrals–and dash out with verve.

Menkes longs for comfortable classic fashion

Suzy Menkes wrote a short piece, "American Beauty" in the New York Times' T Magazine's Holiday 2009 issue, lauding the golden age of clean, clear sportswear from the 1980s; Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan.

She also lauds their roots, the impeccable designs of Claire McCardell, founding mother of functional, stylish "work clothes for the city" in the '50s and '60s.

Today's Calvin Klein, under the leadership of Francisco Costa, has veere
d into a more recherché look, and Menkes calls Donna Karan's clothes today "far more complex", not intended as a compliment.

Menkes said:

".. there is something weird about the way American fashion has turned its back on its heritage, while in Europe thoughtful women designers like (Celine's) Phoebe Philo are embracing it.

British women in the 1960s turned their backs on the Burberry trench coat, the sweater set and the kilt because they seemed like symbols of an old, class-ridden society. Yet when it comes to choosing an outfit, aren't women the world over more likely to find fashion comfort in a skirt and jacket than in a statement dress with built-in bra?

Perhaps it is time for America's designers to revisit a not-so-distant past when
easy pieces were fashion staples that offered women that holy grail of fashion: wardrobe solutions rater than design challenges."

Amen, Suzy, and I would like you to lead me to these, at perhaps a gentler price point than Philo's spare masterpieces.

Who might fulfill Menke's wish

Tommy Hilfiger?

Judging by this vivacious pink coat with tall boots and an outrageously good-looking bag, he seems poised to step up. But a look at his website
was discouraging, too many skimpy junior styles.

Ralph Lauren?

I've avoided Lauren for years, there's a tough edge, rather than grace, in his department-stor
e boutiques.

But some pieces are softer, more thought-out.
This Blue Label pea coat delivers the absolute American ease that puffs Suzy's pompadour.

Michael Kors?

This belted Slide Dress (from Bergdorf Goodman online) is a perfect example of something that dresses, but does not wear you. And at $1,395 I hope you'd wear it a lot.

Maybe the answer is to stop pinning hopes on a single designer and just look for quality clothing. This Pendleton featherweight merino double-face jacket with McCardell sensibility, is on sale now, $199, reduced from $278; US shipping only.

Chloe black cotton belted cotton tunic dress, $1,515 at Net-a-porter.

Zac Posen canvas day dress with ecru trim, $890 at Bergdorf Goodman.The details make a simple dress memorable.

Lela Rose coral silk-linen coral sheat
h dress, $895 from Bergdorf Goodman. A delectable backdrop for a necklace!

The real deal: Wool jersey dress, lined in blue silk, size 6, by Norman Norell, $425 from Swank Vintage. In excellent, new condition.